SYNGE’S “RIDERS TO THE SEA”:
The Colonial Image Refuted
Riders to the Sea is a tragedy portraying the sort of poor Irish peasant family which had previously supplied material for comedies on London stages. Though set in contemporary Ireland, the play provides a window into the life of the people in ancient times: the life of the Aran community is archaic: untouched by modern life, untouched by colonialism. The power of the sea is the main theme of the play: it is both provider and destroyer; it provides life, connection with the mainland, but it takes life. The dramatic structure of the play centres around the sea: in the beginning there is suspense as to whether the sea has given back the dead body of the young man it has taken. At the end there is suspense as to whether the last remaining son will survive the storm. The power of the elements is demonstrated to the audience in the opening scene as the wind tears open the door of the cottage. The main epic speech describes the destruction of the men of the family. As the old woman tells of past tragedies, the next and last one is re-enacted. This shows the audience that her presentiments and fears were justified; it demonstrates the struggle with the elements and the cycle of death; the ancient ritual of the community in the face of death; the stoic resignation and strength of the old woman. Many elements of the play remind one of the classical tragedies of antiquity: the compelling structure, the foreshadowing of the tragedy and its inevitability, the element of guilt which is not personal guilt, the stoic acceptance of fate, the great simplicity and dignity of the main character. The play is not a political parable, but it had a significant political impact. It counteracted the colonial view of the Irish as a rather savage, primitive uncultured people. It shows a family struggling against overwhelming odds to survive, and maintaining dignity in defeat. It shows that poverty does not of necessity mean...
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